For a man who's been Britain's most successful comedy export since Benny Hill, Richard Curtis comes in for a phenomenal amount of stick. The cash-churning success of Four Weddings And A Funeral and Notting Hill notwithstanding, his detractors slam Curtis' films as the self-satisfied scribblings of a privileged Notting Hill ponce, exporting his rose-tinted vision of Britain as a country full of pampered commitment-phobes (and the American women who love them) to the rest of the world.
It's sort of like rebuking Woody Allen for telling tales about wealthy, white Manhattan Jews. After all, Britain's premier rom-com practitioner writes what he knows, and he just happens to spin the kind of crowd-pleasing confections that draw in people who don't venture to the cinema much. When MOR songstress Dido crops up on the soundtrack midway through Love Actually, it's like a soothing beacon calling to the faithful: it's okay, there's nothing to frighten you here. Gwyneth Paltrow's head will not be turning up in a box.
Which is another way of stating that naysayers won't be won over by Curtis' latest. His first foray behind the camera not only clings like a crusty barnacle to the established rom-com formula, it's essentially a Greatest Hits of his screenwriting career (wedding, funeral, swearing, Hugh Grant, etc). It's also his softest movie yet, an ode to love, Christmas, cringy pop music and warm, fuzzy sweaters - - a big, snug duvet of a movie that you can flop onto and get lost in.
As far as frothy, feelgood stuff goes, Love Actually works on most levels. Curtis is certainly no genius behind the camera, and he struggles to keep his multiple storylines ticking over (losing a few along the way). But you can't deny his way with a comic set-piece, particularly if it involves scenes of excruciating social embarrassment or gaucheness (of which there are plenty here). Set in London in the frantic run-up to Crimbo, it kicks off with Grant, as Britain's bachelor Prime Minister (yeah, right), pondering the power of lurve as lovebirds and families reunite at Heathrow. His conclusion? That yes, indeed, it is all around. Hooray!
Grant's strand - - PM falls for his profanity-spewing tea lady (Martine McCutcheon) - - is the hub for nine other overlapping passion-plays, with links between characters casually revealed over the course of the film. From the lesser (boy-meets-girl with a twist, with The Office's Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as porn-movie stand-ins) to the slightly more substantial (Colin Firth's cuckolded writer decamps to the south of France where he falls for his Portuguese cleaning girl), Curtis paints the action with very broad strokes, in a something-for-everyone kind of way.
With so many subplots and characters, it's inevitable that some leap out, in particular the fabulous Bill Nighy, who swipes the film as a washed-up rocker whose lousy holiday rendition of `Love Is All Around' becomes a potential Christmas No1. There are also, of course, a few duffers, which with the film's unnecessarily puffed-out running time, should have been axed. Chief offender is the story of Colin (Kris Marshall), an unlucky-in-love washout who ventures to the American Midwest seeking obliging babes; it yields Actually's starriest cameos but is tediously unfunny.
Liam Neeson's widower guiding his elfin 11-year-old stepson through the treacherous shoals of his first crush will either pluck your heartstrings or have you retching into your popcorn. Grant's love-match with McCutcheon never takes off either, although his patriotic smackdown of Billy Bob Thornton's bullying US prez will get UK multiplexes cheering.
Brandishing sentimentality with chest-thumping pride, the film occasionally leaves you aching for something to darken the mood, as when Emma Thompson's wronged homemaker has a mini-Christmas Eve breakdown in the film's most affecting scene. It's these sporadic shadows that ensure only the hardest heart will fail to be touched or amused by at least one of the vignettes.
Here's a safe prediction: British audiences will be surrendering to Curtis' latest charmer in their droves. But even if you're determined to resist, you won't be able to avoid it - like fake cheer and charity Santas, Love Actually'll be all around.